Obama threw down the gauntlet on May 24 in a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy: “Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes. Because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on Earth.”
Actually, I add, they have no place in any civil society. It’s about time to proactively act and implement all measures to deal with this problem for women and girls (and men and boys).
A study released by the Defense Department prior to President Obama’s speech estimated that reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
In recent weeks, there has been a flood of troubling allegations and they come in many forms. Two members of military sexual-assault prevention units – one for the Air Force and one at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas – have been accused of sexual assault. A sergeant at West Point was charged with secretly videotaping female cadets in the shower. And there have been many reports that superiors have advised sexually abused women to drop their charges.
President Obama’s commitment to end this abuse of women in the military has been echoed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and resulted in a variety of legislative proposals from members of Congress designed to improve the Pentagon’s handling of sex crimes.
Legislation would create sexual assault nurse examinersWhile there are many different ways to confront this crisis that are under discussion, one interesting approach affecting the nursing profession was proposed in May by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D- Ill.). Lipinski’s bill would require the armed services to provide professionally trained sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) to assist in investigations and provide specialized medical attention and care to victims. Lipinski said the SANE Deployment Act will “help give victims more confidence to come forward knowing their cases will be handled with greater professionalism and sensitivity.”
Under the bill, the nurse examiners would be available to collect evidence during the critical early stages of any sexual assault investigation and provide care for victims of sexual assault. The congressman said the position would be filled by a nurse who is qualified through education in sexual assault forensics and in how to best care for victims of sex crimes.
Nurses and other medical personnel are on the frontlines of this fight and in position to provide care and other assistance, but they clearly need the help and support of the military brass to do their jobs.
GAO finds nurses, doctors given inconsistent guidance on handling sexual assault cases
Unfortunately, the military leadership may not be moving fast enough to deal with this problem. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that found the Pentagon has not even established consistent guidelines for the treatment of injuries stemming from sexual assault.“Military healthcare providers do not have a consistent understanding of their responsibilities in caring for sexual assault victims because the department has not established guidance for the treatment of injuries stemming from sexual assault – which requires that specific steps are taken while providing care to help ensure a victim’s right to confidentiality,” the GAO said.
As a result, the GAO said, the various military branches have their own protocols for handling sexual assault cases, and these rules sometimes conflict. The GAO reports that some bases did not give doctors or nurses directions on how to keep sexual assault cases confidential or in other instances had rules that interfered with their ability to do so. The report warned that without assurances of privacy, that “sexual assault victims who want to keep their cases confidential may be reluctant to seek medical care.”
The Pentagon surely has a great deal of work to do to put a stop to this growing problem of sexual assault against women. While there are many steps that must be taken to address this disturbing problem, nurses and other healthcare professionals must be given clear and consistent direction on how cases should be handled, the proper training and the full backing of leadership, from Washington on down to base commanders and those in charge of medical facilities.Our job is to prevent assault, to make sure victims feels safe to report the assault and to help the victims heal. Our mission is to join the voices demanding change in the military. To do that we need to be empowered; put nurses in leadership positions to do what they do best, protect and enhance the well-being of people.